How The 1981 Kansas City Royals Stumbled Back Into The Playoffs

The 1981 Kansas City Royals were coming off a season that saw them win their first pennant. They made it back to the postseason in ’81, but it took a lot of unusual circumstances—a players’ strike in mid-season and subsequent expansion of the playoffs opened the door for the Royals, who still needed a managerial change to help get over the top.

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Kansas City’s offensive production fell hard in the odd 1981 MLB season, ranking 12th in the American League in runs scored. George Brett still produced, with a stat line of .361 on-base percentage/.484 slugging percentage. Willie Aikens, the slugging first baseman hit 17 home runs in the shortened year and speedy left fielder Willie Wilson swiped 34 bases. Otherwise, offense was hard to come by.

The Royals had parted ways with catcher Darrell Porter, who left via free agency, and John Wathan did not swing the bat well as the permanent replacement. Frank White, Amos Otis and Hal McRae, mainstays on the excellent KC teams from 1976-80, all struggled at the plate in 1981.

Pitching was decent, but still middle of the pack, so it wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of runs. Dennis Leonard, the workhorse, still piled up 201 innings in a little over one hundred games and posted a 2.99 ERA. Larry Gura, the reliable lefty, was 11-8 and a 2.72 ERA. Rich Gale and Paul Splittorff each struggled in 1981 and some of the slack was picked up when Mike Jones stepped in and went 6-3 with a 3.21 ERA.

The strength of the staff was in the bullpen, with submarine-style closer Dan Quisenberry saving 18 games with a 1.73 ERA and Renie Martin posting a 2.77 ERA. Still, while the pitching was good enough to win, it had a heavy load to carry with the struggling offense.

Kansas City lost 10 of their first 13 games, were ten games back of the streaking Oakland Athletics by April 24 and never got the deficit into single digits when the players went on strike on June 12. When play resumed in August, the Royals got a big break.
MLB was then divided into four divisions, two in each league, with only the first-place teams advancing to the postseason.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided to wipe the slate clean, and declared those teams that led their divisions at the strike to be “first-half winners.” Everyone would start fresh, and the “second-half winners” would then advance to play the first-half winner in the Division Series, a concept heretofore unheard of in major league baseball.

Furthermore, another twist on the rule worked even better for Kansas City, and the 22 other teams that had not led their divisions at the strike. Even if the first-half winner also won the second-half, there would still be a Division Series—in that case, the second-place team in the second half would advance, with the only penalty being the loss of one home game in the best-of-five Division Series round.

Essentially, Oakland, whose great starting rotation had them in command of the AL West, had nothing to play for in the second half.

The Royals split their first ten games out of the strike. On August 29, after a 4-3 loss at lowly Toronto, KC fired manager Jim Frey. The skipper’s only full season in Kansas City was 1980 and he had produced a pennant, but the front office decided change was in order and they brought in Dick Howser.

Under the guidance of Howser, Kansas City went 20-13 the rest of the way and essentially ran away with the second-half title. The Chicago White Sox, who had been competitive in the first half, collapsed. So did the California Angels, who had won the division in 1979 and would do so again in 1982. Oakland was in the mix, but the only team that mattered was the Texas Rangers, and Kansas City finished with a 4 ½ game margin on the Rangers. The key was an 8-1 stretch in early September that started at home with the Angels and then went through Oakland and California.

Kansas City went on to the Division Series in spite of having an overall 50-53 record, marking them the only sub-.500 team to ever qualify for the MLB playoffs. The Royals were summarily swept by Oakland in three straight.

But a big long-term foundation was put in place with the hiring of Howser. That isn’t intended to disrespect Frey, who was 1-for-1 in pennants in his full seasons with KC, and went on to manage the Chicago Cubs to the 1984 NL East title. But Howser was something special—he had led the New York Yankees to 103 wins in 1980, before falling victim to George Steinbrenner’s wrath. And he would ultimately lead Kansas City to its greatest triumph in 1985.